John Pye M.S.C. OAM
The Northern Territory has but two seasons, a wet and a dry. Australian Rules
is the code of football played here, played across 'the Wet', from October through to March, just as the AFL takes a breather
Br Pye, far fitter and sprightlier than a 100-year-old
man ought by rights to be, is the man who brought football to the Aborigines of the outlying parts of the Northern Territory.
up on the Murray River at Mullewa, Br Pye boarded at Wagga with the Marists and joined the Catholic
religious Order called the MSC (Missionary of Sacred Heart).
Br Pye joined the Order because 'I wanted to help people
in faraway places', as he puts it now. Now of course the places he once thought were 'faraway' are the centre of his world Port Keats (Wadeye) and the beautiful Tiwi Islands.
The Tiwi Islands are a pair of islands (Bathurst and Melville) located 80 km north of Darwin, home to 1750 Aboriginal people living in three communities.
After serving the MSC for 10 years in Toowoomba, Br
Pye was sent to the Tiwi Islands in 1941. The Mission had been working on the islands for only 30 years at that time, its presence there having
been established by the redoubtable Father Francis Xavier Gsell MSC.
In 1941 the Tiwi people still played a traditional
form of football, whose object was to run or kick the ball over a line. Br Pye had been a sportsman in his youth, having excelled
in sprinting and having captained the school football team.
It was natural for him to introduce the Tiwi
people to the brand of football he had played as a younger man, and on their part the Tiwi people took to it enthusiastically.
The Tiwi Football League was established in
the 1969/70 wet season, starting with five teams Pumarali, Tapalinga, Imalu, Tuyu and Irrimaru.
The teams were not based on clans, permitting
people to mix with others from outside their immediate group. Three new teams have joined the Tiwi League since Taracumbie,
Warankuwu and Nguiu bringing the total competition to eight.
The Tiwi Grand Final has earned a place in the annual
sporting calendar of the Northern Territory. Territorians and others travel long distances to be at this event. First Ted Whitten, and then his son Ted Whitten
Jr, have taken great pride in presenting the trophy on that occasion.
Ted Whitten Jr now works in the marketing department
of Melbourne's Victoria University, a university with a strong interest in Australian Rules football.
From the Tiwi Islands have come several AFL stars, the most famous of which
have been the Rioli men. Richmond's
Maurice Rioli was the first of this family to make it into the big time. Another star was David Kantilla, who progressed from
a tin shed to a spot in the South
Adelaide team, later tragically
killed in a car smash. Tiwi also boasts the Long family, including the inspiring Michael at Essendon.
The Tiwi Islands became Br Pye's adopted home. He found love and friendship
among the people here, and he is regarded as genuine family by many people both on Tiwi Islands and at Port Keats, to the South-West of Darwin.
In 1975 he took several Port Keats and Tiwi people
on a pilgrimage to the Vatican by air. As they flew from Bombay
to Rome, as luck would have it, the jet caught fire and they
had to escape down the emergency slides. One Tiwi woman plucked a three-young-old white passenger to safety. Br Pye was the
last to leave the plane and pulled a muscle when sliding down from the grounded aircraft. Undaunted, he and his companions
kept on their journey. Asked what he thought of the episode, one Tiwi man, Jackie Bourke, remarked dryly, "That's the second
suitcase I have lost!" (His first had gone missing at Sydney Airport.)
Now Br Pye has come to have a kidney operation in Darwin. Good-natured as ever, he tells the story of how the hospital almost yanked
out the one kidney which was still functioning. Most of us would have trouble telling that story with a laugh, but Br Pye
is not an ordinary person. He even jokes that his kidney problems may have derived from his long residence on the Islands, for Tiwi people have a well-documented history of renal troubles.
Br Pye wants the museum of artefacts he has
collected on Tiwi to be properly maintained, for, through this strange pastime called Australian Rules, a means of communication
between two very different people has been established.
Over the years the game has become more tolerant
of indigenous players, but there is still more the AFL should do to combat racism, he thinks.
Football in the Territory is flourishing, thanks to
people like Br Pye and local Darwin
businessman Tony Shaw, himself a former South Adelaide player,
latterly president of the Northern Territory Football League. The NTFL has now been invited to field a team in the South Australian
A football branded with the school emblem was recently
presented to Br Pye on behalf of the Marist school in Melbourne, Marcellin College, in honour of his contribution to the cause of indigenous Australians.
Marcellin principal, Mr Paul Herrick, praised the work of Br Pye and recalled the wonderful experience for his school of having
Territorian Robbie Ahmat at Marcellin in 1995.
Br Pye, bedizened in the new Tiwi Guernsey he and his
mates had just designed, accepted the ball gratefully. The sun was setting over the harbour at the Darwin Sailing Club. Off
to the north were his beloved Tiwi Islands. All was at peace with this man's world. He sat back and had another sip
of his beer.
In 2004 Brother John Pye was honoured
with his induction into the Tiwi Island Hall of Fame.
Br Pye celebrated his 100th birthday in
a nursing home in Nightcliff (NT) on the 28/12/2006
Sadly Brother Pye passed away on the 29th May 2009 at the age of 102 and he is
buried on the Islands
was admitted to the NT’s inaugural Hall of Fame on the 30/10/2010